I’m pleased to welcome John Berndt, LMFT as a guest blogger this month writing on the topic of personal disclosures with therapy clients. This is a fascinating and complex topic in our field, and one that can be misunderstood at times.
As most of us know, there are therapeutic modalities where no amount of disclosure, no matter how small, is included in that particular modality.
However, for the majority of pyschological modalities, the use of personal disclosure, as long as it is beneficial for the client’s healing and progress, and supports trust and rapport building, is acceptable, and sometimes important depending upon the client’s circumstances.
John does an excellent job of discussing healthy and appropriate disclosure, boundaries, and key considerations when disclosing personal details to a client. This is an important topic considering that non clinical over disclosing is one of the ways that well meaning therapists can get in to hot water with their licensing boards.
About the blog author: John is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a trusted Gottman trained couples therapist. He practices in Los Angeles helping couples stuck in repetitive arguments communicate their needs in more productive, understanding, and connecting ways. John also helps individuals learn how to be vulnerable, trusting, connect with others, and live more authentic lives.
John is a respected colleague, an excellent counselor, and he is also my friend.
Follow John on Facebook: @johnberndttherapy Twitter: @jberndttherapy and Instagram: johnberndttherapy
To Disclose, or Not to Disclose: What Is the Question?
How much should I reveal about myself to my clients? Should I reveal anything at all? How much is too much? These are the questions most therapists have about self-disclosure. There are many ideas about how much or how little we disclose about ourselves to our clients, or whether we should disclose anything at all.
We’ve heard clients say previous therapists talked too much about themselves. Or we worry that too much information about us will cloud how our clients perceive us. We fear how our self-disclosure will impact our clients and our relationship with them.
My thoughts on personal disclosures with clients…
I tend to think that my being a fellow human being only helps my relationship with my clients. I also believe in living authentically because only in being honest and vulnerable can we truly connect with others. This doesn’t mean I want to or should expose a lot of who I am to my clients. Many therapists feel it tarnishes the perception of an unbiased listener that they’d like to provide for their clients. That is one way. Some feel revealing more will model positive ways of being in the world for their clients. Still others feel relationships are built on trust, shared experiences and meaning, so they may share a lot in an effort to provide a good relationship for their clients; a type of relationship they don’t have or may have never experienced. How do you use self-disclosure?
My father recently passed away and I was out of the state for a month. Eventually I felt the need to tell my clients that this was the reason I repeatedly cancelled our sessions. They all knew I was “out of town,” but I was cancelling a week ahead due to the uncertainty of the situation. I had to cancel with some clients three weeks in a row. I told my clients the true reason because I felt they had a right to know why I couldn’t see them for so long and didn’t want to leave it just at “I can’t make it again this week.” I didn’t want them to think I took our sessions, their time, or our work together lightly. I also wanted to tell them the truth. My father was dying, and my family needed me. I also wanted to take care of myself. Maybe they would see some healthy prioritizing; maybe they would feel abandoned. There was no way for me to know. What I did know was that I wanted to be honest with them. I ultimately found this helpful, because when I returned my clients each conveyed a level of empathy I hadn’t seen from them before. We were able to talk about the empathy they showed me. Hopefully I was more relatable to them.
And then there’s other types of disclosure.
I recently had a woman contact me about bringing her fifteen-year-old son to see me. She said she found me when she Googled some version of “gay Mormon therapist.” She was distressed, explaining that her family was Mormon, and her son has a porn problem and a “same sex attraction problem.” I paused. I asked what she meant by problem, and she said something to the effect of how it was really just one of the issues she thought he needed help with. She asked if they could come see me, I agreed to see if we were a good fit.
During the meeting, I decided to let them both know that I am no longer an active member of the Mormon church, I am gay, and I live with my partner. I did this on purpose. It wasn’t conversational. I started the session with this reveal saying, “You should both know…” I needed them to know that I do not identify myself as a Mormon anymore, but I do understand what it’s like to be a Mormon and hold those beliefs.
A few days after the meeting, I received an email from her saying that we were not a good fit. I say all of this to point out how tricky self-disclosure can be. There was something in the initial phone conversation with this woman that pricked up my ears. The feeling was only confirmed face to face. I sensed how important it would be for her to know that although her Google search terms brought her to me, I may not be what she assumed. These terms could be taken either way. Had I remained silent and agreed to take on this client, a number of scenarios could have played out. She may have felt misled, possibly angry and deceived. I couldn’t not tell them that I am gay. It is important that my clients know they will get honesty from me.
When I think of disclosing to clients, it usually hinges on the question I ask myself, “Who is this for?”
My sister passed away over twenty years ago from cancer. As I’ve had clients over the years, many have come in with siblings who have died, members of their family who have had cancer, and some of them who have a sibling who has also died of cancer. I’ve even had a client who had a sister die with the same name as my sister, and who was roughly the same age when she passed. These conversations bring my sister immediately to my mind. But telling my client this, even under the guise of letting them know I might understand, isn’t something I’ve ever done. It hasn’t felt helpful. It’s felt indulgent; selfish. Like when you tell a friend that you had a bad day, and they say, “So have I!” then proceed to tell you all about it instead of listening to you.
Much of my work with couples brings up the struggles and triumphs I have in my own relationship. Again, I have never disclosed any particulars in this area. Yes, most of my clients know I have a partner and that he is male. This has only ever been revealed because a client has asked me a direct question like, am I married, do I have a partner, is your partner male, etc.
Speaking of direct questions, I do believe in answering them, in general, rather than the “what would it mean to you if I were married or single?” that some therapists tend to counter with. That has never felt genuine to me. The idea that there may be something else they’re trying to convey, or there is a deeper meaning behind a conversational human question just isn’t the way I see things. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
This type of question also comes up when a client asks how long I’ve been licensed, where I went to school, or how long I’ve been seeing clients. I could waffle about how my qualifications prove that I’m worthy of my fee and that I’m capable of listening to their issues, or put their mind at ease about how it may seem I’ve only been licensed for a short while, but don’t forget I was an intern for a very long time seeing clients, or “what would it mean to you if I were licensed for longer/shorter than you’re thinking/expecting?”
But I don’t do any of that. I just say, “Two and a half years,” or, “Pacific Oaks College,” or “About ten years.” The only difference is if the direct question is inappropriate or very personal. In these instances, I do pause and ask why they want to know. Not usually because I’m trying to deflect their question or I’m uncomfortable, but because I genuinely want to know why they are asking such an inappropriate or personal question. I have said exactly that when this has happened. “Why do you want to know such personal information about me?”
I had a client ask me once if I was single. Because he said it this way, I asked why he wanted to know. He said he’d like to date me. This was important because he’d never seen a therapist before and I was able to explain the nature of therapy and the boundaries around it. I never did tell him whether I was single or not; that wasn’t the point to his question. He wanted to date me, which was impossible for many personal reasons, and unethical and illegal for me to date him from a professional position. He needed to be educated about this, not scolded or engaged in a conversation about my personal life.
I find our anxiety around disclosure can mirror what we notice in clients, in that they may spend a lot of time worrying or trying to figure out what other people think of them, or spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to best spin interactions with others in their lives. I work with people who have difficulty revealing all kinds of things to other people. Many spend so much time in their heads trying to present their “best self” to others, I don’t want to do that back to them when they ask me questions.
But I also don’t reveal things like, “My sister died of cancer, so I know what you’re going through.” This doesn’t work anyway. First, I don’t know what they are going through. They had a different relationship with their sibling than I had with mine. I also don’t know their beliefs around illness, health, and death. I would be making assumptions that their relationships and worldviews are just like mine. In fact, I find it useful to specifically focus on the differences in a similar story to mine to avoid making assumptions that I know how my client was impacted by a similar event. This gets in the way of my really hearing my client, and truly understanding what they actually are going through.
So, when thinking about whether to disclose, or not to disclose, I think it depends on the question.
When considering the level of comfortable self-disclosure in response to client questions, this approach works for me. I hope you find ways for you that are thoughtful, intentional, have the client’s best interest in mind, and are motivated by moving the therapeutic work and clinical relationship forward.
John Berndt, LMFT
I want to take a moment to thank John for his wonderful contributions to our field, and for his excellent blog on a complex but important topic. If you would like to share your thoughts or questions on this subject, or simply introduce yourself, you are welcome to do so in the comment section below.
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Kindly and in support,
Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S